O'Fallon community remembers life, work of Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. penned those words in 1963 while imprisoned in a Birmingham, Ala., jail. Over half a century later, they still ring true — so much so that Father Bill Hitpas of St. Nicholas Catholic Church in O’Fallon decided to share them again on Monday, a day set aside nationally to honor King and his legacy to civil rights in America.
Locally, Hitpas was one of many featured speakers at the eighth annual MLK Breakfast, which was held at the New Life In Christ Interdenominational Church in O’Fallon as a way to continue the pursuit of King’s dream of racial harmony and equality. The event was co-hosted by the church, the city of O’Fallon, O’Fallon Council of Ministers, and the O’Fallon Metro East Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“O’Fallon has always been a leader in the metro-east with programs and events that are designed to bring people together,” said Bishop Geoffrey Dudley of New Life In Christ Interdenominational Church.
“We are happy to partner with the faith community, because Martin Luther King Jr. was a person of faith who moved this country by faith to embrace its values of liberty, justice, and the pursuit of happiness for all its citizens. His faith empowered him to use the power of non-violence to overcome hatred, prejudice and racism. It’s this time of year America pauses to honor not just the man, but the America we have become because of the man,” said O’Fallon Mayor Gary Graham.
About 200 people attended the program, including local religious, civil, government and public dignitaries.
“Dr. King was not simply a civil rights activist, he was also a minister, he was a man of prayer. And because he listened to God’s dream, he formed a dream,” Hitpas said. “And, when Martin had a dream and shared it with the country — ‘I have a dream that all people will be judged by the quality of their character not the color of their skin’ — his dream became our dream.”
And the dream hasn’t changed.
“We are proud to lead the metro-east in celebrating the values King espoused: justice, hope, liberty, racial harmony, and diversity,” Graham said.
However, many of the speakers admitted, the dream has yet to be fully realized.
“We need to remember we have a long ways to go,” said state Sen. Kyle McCarter of Lebanon. “And that’s what inspired me today.”
Hitpas recalled when he was asked to join the ranks with featured speakers for the first MLK Breakfast in O’Fallon. Though just seven years ago, it seems to him like a different time now, he said.
“We were welcoming our first black president. It was a time of hope, and perhaps, we had turned a corner on racism, but that’s not where we are today… The racism we thought was ending merely went behind the front lines and went into retreat to regroup and come back with an even stronger force.”
St. Clair County Board Chairman Mark Kern said that seeking guidance from a higher power is how to get back on the right path.
“Dr. King said once that, ‘Faith is taking the first step, even when you don’t see the whole staircase.’ We know that our communities, like this community, all were founded on faith. And institutions like this wonderful church are the basis of what St. Clair County was made of,” Kern said. “This year, 2017, is the 100th anniversary of a very dark chapter of our history in this county, and it’s the East St. Louis race riots… We know that it was a horrible, horrific time in our history, but it was the churches that were the only shining light… They were the safe havens for people.”
Kern said there must also be an increased dialogue about race issues, both locally and across the country, and events such as the breakfast in O’Fallon are a great example of how it can be done.
“Talking with each other and being with each other, breaking bread … and being with our families and talking about issues, that’s what Dr. King would want us to do today to celebrate his life and what he meant for this country,” Kern said.
Hitpas said that, as a people, Americans need to go beyond the facades and look deeper to find one another’s common humanity. As an example, Hitpas said black men and police officers in America are fighting the same struggle of injustice — not being judged by who they are, but rather the color of their skin or the uniform they wear.
“They are both victims of the same kind of thinking, the same prejudice. Both are judged by the groups that they belong. None of them are seen as individuals with parents, wives, children and families, a common vulnerability, a common suffering for all the people who loved them. The divisions among us are not by accident, they are deepened (by those) feeding and fueling the angers of people,” Hitpas said.
His advice to attendees: Do what King did — lead by example.
“We honor Dr. King by bringing light and pursuing truth with everything that is in us by choosing love and reconciliation not hate and violence,” Hitpas said.